So much peace so little time: Natalie Pohley and Hip Hop Congress introduce new programs in 2016

By: Tricia Caspers, Columnist
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To get involved in any of the programs listed in this article, contact Natalie Pohley at

Listening to Natalie Pohley’s plans for promoting peace in Auburn could make a person dizzy. As the co-director of Auburn Hip Hop Congress with her partner Rocky Zapata, as well as youth program coordinator for Placer Arts, event organizer for the annual Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, director of Growing Peace Camp, and mother of two, she’s no stranger to a full schedule.

In 2016, though, she’s kicking peace up a notch.

“Young people are so fresh,” she said. “I want to inspire them to give back to their community, and to talk honestly with each other beyond the school setting.”

Pohley grew up in Auburn and began working with at-risk youth at the now-defunct Peer Court, coordinating volunteer opportunities for youth. She and Zapata started the Auburn branch of Hip Hop Congress seven years ago as a way to offer local teens a positive outlet for self-expression through writing and music. Now the students who joined Hip Hop Congress as teens have grown into young adults, and Pohley is putting them to work helping out the next generation.

“To watch them with younger kids is amazing,” she said.

Her 2016 plans begin with the creation of a Friday Night Live club in collaboration with Boys and Girls Club of Placer County. This pilot program falls under the umbrella of the California Department of Health Care Services and strives to prevent substance abuse by promoting healthy behaviors, but Pohley hopes to take it further. The 13-week series of workshops teaches teens life skills and coping mechanisms. It offers them a safe place to share their concerns and learn to be empathetic toward others. The teens in the Friday Night Live club will be trained as peace ambassadors, another program that Pohley piloted last month. They will take those skills and teach them to younger kids.  

The ambassadors are an offshoot of Growing Peace Camp which was developed by Millie Livingston with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom more than 25 years ago.

“We want to raise up a generation to be kind to each other,” she said.

The pilot program for Peace Ambassadors started last month at Auburn Elementary School. The seven-week program works with two students from each classroom in two groups, kindergarten through second grade and third through fifth grade.

“We chose students who were leaders but not in a productive way,” said Principal Aurora Westwood Thompson. “We also chose students who were exceptional leaders already … we didn’t want to single anyone out.”

The program encourages students to imagine what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes, to imagine how it feels to be bullied, or to be the bully. It also teaches how to build a friendship as well as coping skills for when students are teased or angry. It encourages students to find healthy outlets for their frustration, such as art, sports or music. They were also challenged each week to compliment another student or say hello to someone new.

Pohley doesn’t like to think of it as an anti-bullying program, but instead as pro-peace. She had been developing the program on her own when she was approached by Westwood Thompson – who’s in her first year at the school – to start a program at Auburn Elementary. Together the two put on the finishing touches and applied for a $1,000 grant from Auburn Education foundation, which was funded.

“When I arrived at Auburn El I acknowledged that, like most schools, there were issues with peer pressure and bullying,” Westwood Thompson said.

The principal was seeing the same students being sent to the office repeatedly, she said, and she wanted to reach those students.

“We were very strategic about who was selected so that they would be in a program that highlighted being a role model,” she said.

The important piece, Pohley said, is working with the same students week after week. That’s what makes real change.

“In the second class … three different kids in a row, unprompted, spoke up,” Pohley said.
“One said, ‘I haven’t been very nice … I want to change my life.’”

Another student said he wanted to befriend someone he’d bullied in the past, and the third said he wanted to apologize to the person he’d bullied.

“It was amazing to watch that process,” she said.

The program culminated in an assembly that was co-created by the students themselves.

“It was such an interactive fun assembly,” Westwood Thompson said.

For example, she said, young adult members of Hip Hop Congress asked the audience how it feels to be complimented. They gathered the students’ words and re-mixed them into a rap that engaged the entire student body.

“It was very real for (the students), very timely,” she said. “It didn’t seem like the same old anti-bullying curriculum.”

The greatest impact, Westwood Thompson said, was on the students who participated in the weekly classes.

“It’s not a light switch,” she said. “There are times when they’re still in (the office), but it gives us a starting place.”

Westwood Thompson is hesitant to compare students’ current discipline records with last year’s, she said, because the previous principal may have had different standards. However, the students seem to have a new awareness of how their actions affect others, she said.  

“There’s an empathy that didn’t seem to be there in the beginning.”

Westwood Thompson hopes to have the program return if the funding is available, she said.

Pohley also received a grant from the United Auburn Indian Community to offer five one-hour workshops in writing and reciting in Juvenile Hall, which will also incorporate ideas from the Peace Ambassador program, targeted to an older audience.

“We don’t want this to be a fly-by-night kind of thing,” Pohley said. “We want these kids to stay out of trouble.”

Finally, Pohley is re-invigorating Placer Arts’ “Artists in the Schools” program, which invites local artists into classrooms to teach art lessons and maybe a little peace while they’re at it.

Meanwhile, Hip Hop Congress is not slowing down; instead, it’s sharpening its focus with themed workshops that will run as a series. And in-between everything else Pohley homeschools her daughter, organizes Poets Out Loud, an annual Earth Day festival and – for the first time in 2015 – a Dia de los Muertos remembrance event.

“At the bare minimum we want the next generation to know, ‘You guys are our future — no pressure,” she said, laughing.

Reach reporter Tricia Caspers-Ross at